High blood pressure, also known as "the silent killer," is an epidemic in our nation. It typically has no warning signs or symptoms, and many people don't realize they have it, which is why we must all get it checked regularly. Over time, unaddressed elevated blood pressure can have disastrous consequences including stroke, heart attack, blindness and kidney failure.
Every 39 seconds, someone in this country dies of cardiovascular disease. And despite the fact that the largest risk factor in these deaths — high blood pressure — is both preventable and reversible, as many as 67 million American adults live with high blood pressure, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alarmingly, 47 percent of those with a diagnosis have not gotten their blood pressure under control, according to government research. And many of those afflicted don't adhere to recommended medication regimens because of the drugs' side effects.
Medications are highly effective in bringing down blood pressure, when taken properly. But what you eat (and drink) also has a dramatic impact. The government-endorsed Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet has been proven as effective as prescription medication in reducing blood pressure.
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Many imagine that a blood-pressure-lowering diet involves bland, unseasoned foods and deprivation. That couldn't be further from the truth. Although reducing your sodium intake is an important step in lowering blood pressure, what you add to your diet is as important as what you take out.
Here are 5 surprising and delicious foods from my Blood Pressure DOWN action plan:
Bananas The most popular fruit in the United States, bananas are delectable, portable, inexpensive and filled with fiber. Each banana also has at least 450 milligrams of potassium, nature's most powerful blood-pressure-lowering medicine.
To bring your blood pressure down, you need to go beyond slashing salt and ingest more potassium as well. Abundant scientific evidence has proven that a shortage of this electrolyte plays a major role in the onset of high blood pressure and that restricting potassium intake can cause a blood pressure spike even among people with no previous concerns. A low potassium intake also ups your odds of suffering a stroke.
In practice, potassium offsets the harmful effects of sodium. To lower your blood pressure through dietary means, you need to shift your body's balance of sodium and potassium by bringing your sodium intake to under 1500 milligrams a day while raising your potassium intake to about 4700 milligrams — the average American adult consumes only about half this much today. (Diabetics, people with chronic kidney disease and those taking a blood thinner, like warfarin, should check with their doctor before increasing their potassium intake.) Potassium is also a natural diuretic — so the more you eat, the more sodium and water you'll excrete through urine.
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Avocado Another potassium powerhouse, the avocado, contains 975 milligrams of the mineral. It also delivers a variety of other heart-healthy vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and monounsaturated fat. Try a ripe avocado on a sandwich instead of mayonnaise or butter and you'll be doing your heart a service by replacing artery-clogging fats with a super-buttery, creamy and tasty spread. Or try my simple guacamole recipe — packed with blood-pressure-lowering nutrients. Serve it as a dip with low-salt bagel or pita chips, or as an accompaniment to quesadillas or tacos.
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt-free seasoning
6 drops hot pepper sauce
First, mash the avocado in a bowl with a fork until it reaches desired consistency. Then mix in the cilantro, lime juice, garlic powder, ground cumin, salt-free seasoning and hot pepper sauce. Serve immediately. (Yield: 1-1/2 cups; serves 6.) Each quarter-cup serving has 98 calories, 6 mg of sodium, 301 mg of potassium, 9 mg of calcium, 1 gram of saturated fat and 4 grams of dietary fiber.
Yogurt The science is in: Adults who consume 1000 to 1500 milligrams of calcium a day in their food reduce their risk of contracting high blood pressure, according to studies of the DASH diet. (Most of us come up woefully short of that target now.) So what's better — taking a supplement or eating calcium-rich foods? One comprehensive meta-analysis by the Women's Health Initiative found that a tailored high-calcium diet had twice the blood-pressure-lowering effect of a calcium-supplement regimen. (Post-menopausal women should still discuss supplements with their doctor to reduce their risk of bone fractures.)
How can you possibly get enough calcium from food? Start with the richest source out there — plain nonfat yogurt — and eat two or more cups a day. Yogurt can also keep your digestive system in tune by supplying live, "friendly" probiotic bacteria, like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis, which promote intestinal function. You can also try yogurt in vegetable or fruit dips, atop your morning bowl of oatmeal or in place of water in pancake and other baked-good recipes. You'll be surprised how this simple swap adds both taste and nutrition.
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Dark Chocolate What gives dark chocolate its blood-vessel benefits? Polyphenols, a major class of bioactive phytochemicals proven to protect against heart and vascular disease. Flavonoids, a subclass of polyphenols that accounts for about two-thirds of our polyphenol intake, are found in high concentration in dark chocolate, as well as in fruits and vegetables. To satisfy your chocolate craving and lower your blood pressure, go with the real thing. Natural unsweetened cocoa powder has the highest concentration of flavonoids of any chocolate product, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate. Cocoa powder is also lower in sugar, fat and calories than solid chocolate bars. To get a tasty dose, try my chocolate banana cake recipe, with two superb blood-pressure-lowering foods in each bite.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Splenda Brown Sugar Blend
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 large ripe banana, mashed (1/2 cup)
3/4 cup soy milk
1/4 cup canola oil
1 large egg
1 egg white
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup semisweet dark chocolate chips
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and spray an 11-by-7-inch brownie pan with nonstick spray. Whisk together the flour, sugar blend, cocoa, and baking soda in one large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the bananas, soy milk, oil, egg, egg white, lemon juice and vanilla. Then make a hole in the middle of the flour mixture and pour on the soy milk mixture and chocolate chips. With a wooden spoon, stir the ingredients together until blended. Spoon the batter into your pan and bake for about 25 minutes, until the center of the cake springs back when pressed lightly with fingertips. (Serves 18.) Each serving has 150 calories, 52 mg of sodium, 119 mg of potassium, 23 mg of calcium, 1 gram of saturated fat and 9 grams of sugar.
Red Wine Too much alcohol increases your risk of high blood pressure and a host of other health concerns. But in moderation (and only in moderation), red wine soothes the arteries, reduces blood sugar and lessens your diabetes risk. The Department of Agriculture defines moderate consumption of wine as one five-ounce glass per day for women and up to two per day for men. This small amount of red wine daily, with food, is part of an evolving lifestyle prescription for preventing the onset of high blood pressure and even addressing existing hypertension.
The key is the presence of substances believed to lower blood pressure in combination — ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and antioxidant polyphenols, including resveratrol and procyanidins. To get the most out of wine's cache of polyphenols, though, stick with red varieties, which average 10 times the polyphenol content of whites because they are fermented with the skins and seeds of the grape.
One additional advantage of enjoying a glass of wine with dinner: It encourages you to slow down, relax and truly savor your meal.
Recipes from the book Blood Pressure DOWN by Janet Bond Brill, Ph.D., R.D.N, LDN, published by Three Rivers Press, May 2013. Copyright © 2013 Janet Brill, Ph.D. To learn more about this book please visit DrJanet.com.